In Vegas, eyes roll after fed spending scandal

Apr 5, 2012, 8:04 AM

Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) – Some people think the government can’t get it right even when it’s doing wrong.

Take, for example, a group of federal employees encouraged to go “over the top” on a five-day conference in 2010 in Las Vegas. They blew $823,000 _ in part on commemorative coins, $44 breakfasts, shrimp dinners and matching vests.

The expenditures, detailed this week in an internal General Services Administration report, prompted an outcry about irresponsible spending at a time when the nation is drowning in debt. The scandal was doubly insulting in Las Vegas itself, which endured some of the worst of the Great Recession and where many still blame President Barack Obama for making it worse when he chastised bank employees for lavish Vegas vacations right after they were bailed out by the government.

For some, details that emerged about the 2010 conference also comically showed how ineptly bureaucrats handle taxpayers’ money. If you’re going to drop $823,000 in Sin City, at least do it with some Vegas style.

“That’s really dumb. When you have strippers, what are you doing buying commemorative coins?” joked comedian Penn Jillette.

Amy Vifquain, a 31-year-old Las Vegas hotel cook, says she would have gone all out if she had that kind of cash to spend as a tourist.

“I would buy a motorcycle, do some clothes shopping. I would eat a lot, too, because there is a lot of good food here. Anything I couldn’t normally do from where I came from,” she said.

The internal report resulted in the termination of two top deputies and the resignation of the agency’s top official hours before its release Monday. The federal agency oversees office space and supplies, transportation and management tasks. The report described multiple trips to Las Vegas by GSA employees that culminated in a weeklong, party-fueled conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Henderson near the Las Vegas Strip.

The employees stayed in luxury suites, threw semi-private parties catered by room service and spent $75,000 to build 24 bicycles for a charity group in an afternoon team-building exercise. At one “networking reception,” the 300 attendees were treated to beef Wellington, cheese displays and 1,000 sushi rolls priced at $7 each. The conference violated federal contracting regulations and far exceeded the government’s meal per diem of $71 a day.

Extravagant, yes, but not the in the league of high rollers, who are treated to private gambling saloons and $425 tasting menus at the city’s swankiest restaurants.

The federal employees could have really lived it up with the money they spent, said Steven Striker, president of Striker VIP, a luxury concierge service in Las Vegas, whose customers rent out nightclubs and restaurants for private parties and commandeer helicopters and fighter jets for flights across the desert. A private dinner with a celebrity chef starts at $250 per guest.

“I meet people all the time and if the first thing out of the mouth is `how much?’ they probably can’t afford me and can’t afford this town,” Striker said. “What happens is a lot of these venues in Vegas are extremely opportunistic when they find out people have an open pocketbook.”

The government’s event planners certainly seemed eager to spend cash in Las Vegas. A regional administrator instructed those planning the conference to make it “over the top.” In March 2009, up to 15 GSA employees traveled twice to Las Vegas on a scouting trip for a possible conference location. Once they settled on the M Resort, 31 of the agency’s workers gathered at the hotel days before the conference for a “dry run.”

“Several suggestions to minimize expenses were ignored,” the report concluded.

The free spending represents somewhat of a moral dilemma for Las Vegas officials, who fund advertising campaigns aimed at persuading tourists to empty their wallets here without a second thought.

“We certainly have no problem with individuals coming to Las Vegas spending their own money…however this is a case where you have government officials off the backs of other people enjoying a lavish party,” said Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank in Las Vegas.

Lawrence said he hopes consumers and government critics don’t associate irresponsible spending with Las Vegas. That’s what happened in 2009 after Obama said corporations shouldn’t use federal bailout money on luxury trips to Las Vegas.

A year later, Obama said at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.”

Convention business dropped after his remarks and city officials blamed Obama. Later that year, the GSA employees were attending $30,000-hotel room parties in suites outfitted with multiple wet bars.

“There will be some negative implication that you shouldn’t come to Vegas … but that’s just foolishness,” said Phil Ruffin, who owns the Treasure Island hotel-casino on the Strip. “They didn’t need to spend that foolishly.”

Ruffin added: “I’m just sorry they didn’t spend it here. We could have used the business.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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In Vegas, eyes roll after fed spending scandal